Latin American States: Refrain from silencing journalists and human rights defenders

06.05.2015

Latin American States should repeal all laws and practices that unduly restrict criticism or dissent or that criminalise defamation, and take positive steps to protect human rights defenders and journalists.

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(Geneva) – Latin American States must stop using penal laws to criminalise criticism, dissent and other manifestations of the right to freedom of expression by journalists and human rights defenders, ISHR has said.

The statement, made in the context of World Press Freedom Day, echoed a press release issued on 4 May by the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), urging States to refrain from using the criminal law to silence criticism.

ISHR welcomed the IACHR statement and highlights its own statement made in March this year, responding to reports by the High Commissioner on Colombia and Guatemala, calling for the protection of human rights defenders. The exercise of freedom of expression and assembly in the Americas face severe challenges, such as violence, harassment and reprisals against journalists, human rights defenders, NGOs and civil society in general, especially during peaceful demonstrations.

The IACHR press release highlighted three recent cases that have been similarly highlighted by ISHR. The first occurred in Venezuela, where the President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, filed criminal charges against journalists for reproducing information that involved him. The journalists were intimidated and threatened, exposed to human rights abuses and publically harassed, including suffering unsubstantiated allegations that they were seeking to undermine Venezuelan democracy on national television, in advance of attending the IACHR Commission’s 154th Session in March.

The second case occurred in Honduras. Women rights defender Gladys Lanza, was sentenced to one and a half years in prison for making public statements about a case of alleged sexual harassment at the workplace. Furthermore, Honduras unleashed a wave of stigmatisation and reprisals against HRDs twho exercised their right to interact with the UN Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process recently. This was immediately condemned by ISHR and many national and international human rights organisations.

In the third case, activists in Guatemala testified that judicial harassment and physical attacks by public security forces are tools frequently used to silence and criminalise those advocating in relation to large-scale development projects. The threats affecting these defenders have an even greater impact on indigenous communities and women human rights defenders.

In the context of these cases and the IACHR’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression statement, ISHR urges States to repeal laws that unduly restrict criticism or dissent or that criminalise defamation, slander or libel. In particular,

  • States should remove any restrictions on the right of individuals and NGOs to engage in advocacy or public debate, particularly in relation to human rights issues, or to critique existing or proposed laws, policies or practices.
  • States should decriminalise the offences of defamation, libel, slander, blasphemy and similar offences, including offences relating to criticism of the government, head of State, or State. States should also ensure that civil defamation laws do not provide for excessive fines or damages that may be incompatible with the right to freedom of expression.
  • States should decriminalise activities, or the publication of materials, that are prohibited on grounds that are broad, vague or do not comply with international human rights standards, such as being ‘insulting’, ‘dangerous’ or ‘prejudicial to the national interest’. 

ISHR further calls on all States to enact positive legislation to protect the right to freedom of expression, and to protect the vital and legitimate work of human rights defenders and journalists, in line with international human rights standards.

For more information on this article contact: Eleanor Openshaw on e.openshaw@ishr.ch or Ben Leather on b.leather@ishr.ch

Category:

Region
  • Latin America and Caribbean
Topic
  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Human rights defenders
  • Reprisals and intimidation
Mechanism
  • Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
Country
  • Colombia
  • Guatemala
  • Honduras
  • Venezuela